Ibrahim Abouleish – The Visionary
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY Waldemar Hauschild • FILM EDITOR Verena Schönauer
SOUND Zoltan Ravasz VDT • ASSISTANT TO PRODUCER Carolin Neubauer
TEXT & SPEEKER Geseko von Lüpke • EDITORIAL Thomas von Bötticher
Location: Belbeis, forty miles northeast of Cairo, Egypt
Founder: Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish
Philosophy/Mission Statement: To create a model sustainable community in the Egyptian desert, based on a unique integration of Islamic principles with the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, that caters to all the needs—financial, health, educational, cultural, religious, and environmental—of its members.
“A miracle in the desert”—that’s how people in Egypt refer to Sekem, the internationally acclaimed self-sustaining farm complex in Belbeis. Using a unique blend of Islam and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, this 750-acre farm grows biodynamic produce, medicinal plants, and cotton; produces food and herbal food supplements; manufactures organic cotton clothes for babies; and much more. At the same time, it supports the cultural development and health of its employees and their families while raising consciousness in the entire region. It owes its success to the deep care, fearless courage, and tenacious perseverance of one inspired individual, its founder, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish.
In 1975, Abouleish, a successful Egyptian scientist living in Austria, took his Austrian-raised children on an extensive tour of his homeland. It was an unexpected shocker. He found this once-prospering country to be a wasteland beset with problems, after years of armed conflict and failed socialist economic experimentation.
Back in the Austrian Alps, Abouleish was haunted by an inner calling to respond. After two years of investigation and research, he had a plan: establish a model sustainable farming community in the desert that, besides providing employment, would care for its members’ overall development in education, health, religion, environment, the economy, and human rights.
As a practicing Muslim, Abouleish based his farm on the three pillars of worship mentioned in the Qur’an: working, learning, and dealing with one another. And as an avid student of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science, he weaved its principles into the farm’s design—especially the principles of biodynamic agriculture.
Islam and anthroposophy may seem like strange bedfellows. Not so, claims Abouleish. “Even though anthroposophy arose in a Christian European context, it is basically a way of thinking, a perspective that helps you discover the deeper meaning in everything,” he explains. He did, however, have to adapt many of the principles of, for example, biodynamic agriculture to the specific conditions of the desert. “But this is exactly what the Muslims did in their golden age,” he explains. “They took what was best from other cultures and philosophies and developed it.”
In 1977, Abouleish moved to Egypt, his family in tow. Within days of arriving, he bought an arid piece of land, one that all experts recommended against. Yet Abouleish trusted the inner vision that this plot of desert land inspired in him—wells flowing with water, green grass covering the landscape, flower beds and healing plants growing under trees, and people flocking from all directions to quench their thirst, physically and spiritually. He called the farm Sekem, an ancient Egyptian word meaning “vitality.”
Sekem has become every bit the vital center that Abouleish envisioned, and then some. Each morning, sixteen hundred people from nearby towns and villages (one thousand employees, four hundred schoolchildren, and two hundred vocational trainees) enter its gates. In their respective work units—agriculture, business companies, medical services, etc.—they start the day with a ritual conceived by Abouleish. Standing in a circle, each person says a few words about what they plan to accomplish for that day and what they accomplished on the previous day. There’s also a larger company-wide circle at the end of the workweek, where leaders of each of Sekem’s divisions summarize the week’s accomplishments. In addition to working, employees take part in enrichment programs, which range from literacy to English to job training to painting to eurhythmy. Weekly question-and-answer sessions with Abouleish also occur, where Islamic topics are often raised. Sekem also holds regular cultural events for employees and their families at its fifteen-hundred-seat amphitheater.
Sekem has also taken responsibility for raising the health and hygiene standards of the thirty thousand people who live in its vicinity. Every home has been equipped with flowing clean water and a toilet and is visited regularly by social and public health workers who give hygiene and health training. They also keep medical files on each person, offer basic treatments, and refer acute cases to the farm’s medical center.
Financially, Sekem is thriving. Demand for its organically grown medicinal herbs, cotton, fruit, and vegetables, both in local markets and abroad, is so high that to meet it, Sekem had to create a network of eight hundred farms throughout Egypt, as well as in Sudan and Iran, and train them in biodynamic agriculture. With Sekem at the helm, the Egyptian authorities converted the country’s entire cotton industry to pesticide- and herbicide-free methods of cultivation.
Like genius, miracles are one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. During the first few years, Abouleish had to fight an uphill battle against the elements, the lack of infrastructure, and the absence of educated staff, not to mention suspicion from Islamic fundamentalists and clandestine opposition from chemical companies, whose revenues from pesticides and herbicides in Egypt were drastically reduced.
Much water has flowed in the Nile since those hard beginnings, and nowadays Sekem is being showered with accolades. In 2003, Dr. Abouleish received the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”; and the Schwab Foundation has selected him as a distinguished Social Entrepreneur, earning him a place in their yearly prestigious forum in Davos, Switzerland.
In spite of the influence of the European culture, including anthroposophy, Abouleish insists that all the different aspects of economic, social, and cultural developments of Sekem can be derived from Islam. He devotes much effort and many resources to sponsor and participate in research into Islamic texts and history, to bring out principles of Muslim business, education, and culture for the twenty-first century. If successful and accepted, this may make Sekem’s example even more palatable to countries in the Muslim world, helping them become creative and constructive forces in the building of the global economy without compromising their religious ideals and traditions.
Sekem / Ibrahim Abouleish (Egypt)
In 1975, on a visit to Egypt together with his family, he was overwhelmed by the country's pressing problems in education, overpopulation and pollution. His admiration for his country led him to establish in 1977 a comprehensive development initiative, which he called SEKEM.
SEKEM is establishing the blueprint for the healthy corporation of the 21st century. Taking its name from the hieroglyphic transcription meaning "vitality of the sun", SEKEM was the first entity to develop biodynamic farming methods in Egypt. These methods are based on the premise that organic cultivation improves agro-biodiversity and does not produce any unusable waste. All products of the system can be either sold or re-used in cultivation, thereby creating a sustainable process.
Egypt's problems are interrelated and include overpopulation, environmental degradation, inadequate education and health care. Agriculture involves 40% of the workforce and remains the least developed sector of the economy. Cost of agricultural production has increased while the resource base has shrunk. Today, Egypt has become one of the world's largest importers of food. Because the country's problems are interrelated, SEKEM has built a thriving social and cultural base to address Egypt's crumbling health, educational and cultural preservation capacities.
SEKEM is formed by three closely interrelated entities: The SEKEM Holding Company comprising six companies, each responsible for an aspect of SEKEM's business value proposition, the Egyptian Society for Cultural Development (SCD), responsible for all cultural aspects, and the Cooperative of SEKEM Employees (CSE), responsible for human resource development. Working together, they have created a modern corporation based on innovative agricultural products and a responsibility towards society and environmental sustainability.
The six companies of Sekem Holding Company are: ATOS - produces and markets phyto-pharmaceuticals and health products; LIBRA - works with farmers to cultivate fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs; HATOR - produces and packs fresh fruit and vegetables from Libra; CONYTEX - manufactures and sells organic textiles to local and export markets; ISIS - production of processed organic foodstuffs; SEKEM - prepares and pre-processes herbs and spices.
SEKEM has grown exponentially in the last decade to a nationally renowned enterprise and market leader of organic products and phyto-pharmaceuticals. It has established reliable links with European and U.S. customers in the export trade. Moreover, 55% of its sales are domestic - an essential element for SEKEM's long-term sustainability. Its strong commitment to innovative development led to the nation-wide application of biodynamic methods to control pests and improve crop yields. However, SEKEM's most important impact on Egyptian society has generally and most probably been achieved through the Egyptian Biodynamic Association (EBDA), an NGO established in 1990 as a means of conducting R & D into biodynamic agriculture in Egypt and training framers in its methods. In collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, SEKEM deployed a new system of plant protection in cotton, which led to a ban of crop dusting throughout Egypt. By 2000, according to UN and FAO reports, pesticide use in Egyptian cotton fields had fallen by over 90%, while prior to the ban 35,000 tons of chemical pesticides were sprayed yearly. Furthermore nearly 80% of Egyptian cotton was being grown organically and average annual yields had increased by nearly 30%.
The SEKEM "mother farm" and processing facilities are located on 300 hectares of land near the town of Belbeis, 60 km from Cairo. After the successful implementation of the biodynamic method in this area, other farmers, stunned by the results, started to cooperate with SEKEM. Today, approximately 800 farmers from Aswan to Alexandria are applying the international guidelines for biodynamic agriculture on 8,000 hectares.
In 1990 SEKEM facilitated the establishment of the Center of Organic Agriculture in Egypt (COAE) as a regulatory and certification body, according and adhering to DEMETER guidelines and the European Regulations for Organic Agriculture.
The SCD is SEKEM's way of reaching out beyond its commercial activity in pursuit of its goal to contribute to "the comprehensive development of Egyptian society". It employs approximately 200 people in four main domains of activity.
A kindergarten, primary and secondary school, and a special needs education program for the children of employees and the neighbouring community.
A work-and-education program for children from poorer families in need of further income, a vocational training center, literacy classes and a training institute for adults.
A Medical Center providing modern medical services and an outreach program, treating 30,000 people yearly from the general vicinity.
An Academy for Applied Arts and Sciences to promote scientific research in the areas of medicine, pharmacy, biodynamic agriculture, sustainable economics and arts.
A number of its social initiatives in the arts and other fields contribute to the development of Egyptians, raising their self-esteem and promoting mutual respect. In addition, increasingly Egypt's younger generation seeks to pursue tertiary education. In response, SEKEM is founding a private University offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in arts, science and technology.
Today, 2,000 people work in SEKEM. Revenues have grown from 37 million Egyptian pounds in 2000 to 100 million in 2003. In 1997, SEKEM was awarded ISO 9001 certification, was selected "World Wide Project" of the Hannover EXPO 2000, and in 2002, it secured a loan from the "Deutsche Investitions - und Entwicklungsgesellschaft" (DEG) and the "International Finance Corporation" (IFC).
Through cooperation on projects with sister organizations in Germany and the Netherlands, SEKEM has received support from institutions such as the European Commission, Ford Foundation, USAID, and the Acumen Fund. SEKEM is increasingly seeking to share its experience and acquired knowledge with other countries (including India, Palestine, Senegal and Turkey), and has a partnership for this purpose with the Fountain Foundation in South Africa.
In an article, which appeared in Business Today Egypt, the Sekem Group was described as "an economic powerhouse", but the Group differs from most companies in various aspects:
The training of its employees in social awareness and creative arts, as well as professional skills "to awaken a person's senses, encourage creativity, and foster a sense of social responsibility and ethical awareness." Employees are organized in a 'co-operative of SEKEM employees.
Its management of the value-adding chain from the farmers to the consumers based on partnership and transparency, an approach SEKEM calls the 'economics of love'.
There is also a deep aesthetic commitment. In 2000 the Cairo Times wrote: "Aesthetically speaking, it is almost eerily organized and clean for a farm. The same kind of pastel-colored buildings that comprise the company's administrative center are strewn around the farm, connected to each other by neat paths lined with flowerbeds and trees. Beyond the central square fields of swaying grass and fragrant herbs give the impression that one has reached the gates of paradise."
Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish is clearly an important leadership figure in SEKEM. He was elected as one of the distinguished Social Entrepreneurs by the "Schwab Foundation" to participate within the renowned "World Economic Forum". Increasingly though leadership seems to be passing to the next generation. The Managing Director of the SEKEM Group is his son Helmy Abouleish, born in 1961. Notwithstanding the influence of modern science, Dr. Abouleish, who has always been a Muslim, is at pains to stress the consistency of SEKEM's approach with Islam: "All the different aspects of the company, whether the cultural ones or the economic ones, have been developed out of Islam. We believe that it is possible to derive guiding principles for everything from pedagogics, to the arts, to economics from Islam."
Ibrahim Abouleish, der Gründer des Fairtrade Unternehmens Sekem, kann auf ein beachtliches Lebenswerk blicken. 60 Kilometer nordöstlich von Kairo errichtete er 1977 eine Farm, die heute nicht nur biologisch-dynamische Anbauflächen, Tierhaltung und Wirtschaftsbetriebe umfasst, sondern auch in soziale Einrichtungen wie Schulen, Begegnungstätten und Krankenstationen investiert.
2003 erhielt der Unternehmer dafür den Alternativen Nobelpreis.
Diese Auszeichnung wird von der Right Livelihood Foundation vergeben, die Menschen und Organisationen würdigt, die sich mit praktischen Lösungen und Modellen für menschenwürdige Lebensweisen einsetzen.
Den Impuls dazu bekam Abouleish, als er 1977, nach 20 Jahren aus Deutschland in seine ägyptische Heimat zurückkehrte und vieles in einem zerstörten Zustand vorfand. "Ungehemmter Gebrauch von Chemikalien und Pestiziden vergiftete die Nahrung und das Wasser; die Mehrzahl der Menschen lebte mit Parasiten und chronischen Krankheiten durch ökologisch und hygienisch verheerende Zustände", erzählt er erschüttert.
Abouleish verließ daraufhin mit seiner österreichischen Frau und den beiden Kindern Europa, um in seinem Land eine Art Oase aufzubauen. Der Film stellt den Lebenstraum des sozial denkenden 70-jährigen Chemikers und Unternehmers vor.
Dokumentation von Bertram Verhaag (2007)